Ag Policy Blog

Texas Ag Commissioner Sues USDA Over Debt Relief for Minority Farmers

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Sid Miller, a rancher and commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, has filed a lawsuit backed by the new group “America First Legal” against USDA over a new aid program that eliminates FSA loan debt for socially disadvantaged farmers. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed this week in a Texas federal court against USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, claiming that loan forgiveness for directed to socially disadvantaged farmers is discriminatory against white farmers and ranchers such as himself.

Miller filed his lawsuit as an individual, and not a state official. The lawsuit is backed by the new organization “America First Legal,” a group started by former President Donald Trump's advisor Stephen Miller – no relation to Sid Miller.

The lawsuit challenges a provision in the American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden in March. The provision provides debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers, defined as farmers who are Black, or African American, American Indians or Native Alaskans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders. The debt relief applies specifically to Farm Service Agency direct and guaranteed loans.

According to FSA, socially disadvantaged farmers have about $3.7 billion in current and outstanding direct and guaranteed loans. The provision in bill on debt relief was promoted as aid that would remove historic debt for Black farmers that was not paid off during the multiple Pigford litigation settlements. Advocates for these farmers say there are as many as 17,000 Black farmers with legacy debt at USDA that these farmers were unable to pay off, and the Pigford settlements did not address.

USDA shows 14,432 borrowers under the category of socially disadvantaged farmers with 25,328 loans. The loan forgiveness provision in the American Rescue Plan also covered 120% of the loan value to help producers pay off any tax liability that would come from the loan forgiveness.

The 255-page lawsuit filed by Sid Miller and America First Legal claims that the aid provision specifically for minority farmers “lurches America dangerously backward, reversing the clock on American progress, and violating our most sacred and revered principles by actively and invidiously discriminating against American citizens solely based on their race. This is illegal, it is unconstitutional, it is wrong, and it must stop.”

Sid Miller is suing on behalf of all other farmers and ranchers who are excluded from the benefit of programs for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The lawsuit states Miller would be excluded from receiving aid because he is not “black enough,” raising constitutional concerns. Miller also states that “white ethnic groups have unquestionably suffered” discrimination because of their Irish, Italian, German, Jewish or eastern European heritage. Miller also states in the lawsuit that his heritage shows he “has approximately 2% African-American ancestry.”

If successful, Sid Miller's lawsuit could potentially open up USDA from paying off all FSA loans and loan guarantees as of Jan. 1, 2021. According to numbers from FSA, that would amount to 144,802 total borrowers amounting to $31.7 billion in loans.

The threat of litigation was raised by Republican congressmen during the House Agriculture Committee mark up on the bill as lawmakers noted women who qualify as socially disadvantaged were not included in the aid provision.

Sid Miller's case was filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern Texas in Fort Worth. The Texas Tribune reported the case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor, a favorite of conservatives for litigation during the Obama administration.

April 15 Ag Policy Blog: USDA Details Plan for Debt Payments to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers https://www.dtnpf.com/…

A link to the court complaint: https://wordpress.aflegal.org/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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